Students create website to help Chicago-area residents shop local

Collaborative effort at Law School has helped 400-plus small businesses during pandemic

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker had just closed all bars and restaurants to dine-in traffic in mid-March when University of Chicago Law School student Jennifer Bisgaier opened her email to find a request from Lect. Amy Hermalik.

With the coronavirus pandemic straining local businesses, Hermalik wanted to help drive traffic to Chicago-area stores that were offering online shopping, curbside pickup, and delivery for food and other essentials. To build a website, Hermalik needed volunteers.

“It was obvious there was going to be a massive disruption,” recalled Hermalik, the associate director of the Law School’s Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship. “People were not going to be out and shopping as much, and they would be looking for certain items that they could no longer find, and it just struck me as the perfect opportunity for us to highlight all of these incredible small businesses.”

Bisgaier isn’t even a part of the IJ clinic, but she had taken Hermalik’s Winter Quarter seminar on segregation in Chicago. As she read Hermalik’s email in her Hyde Park apartment, she knew she wanted to help. Along with three other students, Bisgaier helped create Shop in Place Chicago, a website that makes it easy for Chicagoans to purchase food, soap, board games, books and much more from small local businesses. The site includes verified information about hundreds of shops and restaurants and is searchable by neighborhood and business type.

Three additional IJ students focused on creating information sheets for small businesses that explained issues such as small business loans, unemployment benefits, tax deferral programs and the federal Families First Act.

“It was a relief to be able to do something concrete to help out,” said Bisgaier, a third-year law student. “It gave me a chance to forget about my own concerns and have a larger effect on people who are truly struggling in this city.”

The students on the two projects worked throughout their two-week spring break, with Hermalik and IJ Clinic director Beth Kregor reviewing memos, offering guidance and supervising progress. Bisgaier and the rest of the website team—second-years Kurt Cronican, Erica Zhao and Michaela Mapes—came up with categories of items people might need and began reaching out to local stores to find out what they planned to offer. They placed a special emphasis on businesses in low-income communities, such as Englewood, Back of the Yards and Chatham.

The clinic’s national organization, the Institute for Justice, built the Shop in Place Chicago website, creating an interface that has since been shared free of charge in other cities.

Hermalik is especially concerned about the impact that COVID-19 will have on the South Side and other predominantly African American or Latino communities, which have more low-income business owners and less collective wealth. “They’re more likely to struggle to keep their doors open during a crisis like this,” she said, “and everyone should work to prevent this crisis from increasing the already existing racial disparities in business ownership and business success.”

As the crisis grew, so did the website. Shop in Place Chicago launched on March 25 with 12 businesses. As of April 22, it had expanded to 440 businesses with a growing number of categories and neighborhoods, including a few suburbs.

Businesses can submit themselves for consideration by filling out an online form, which includes questions about what they offer and how, and where customers can find them online.

Bisgaier herself has used the website, diverting dollars she might have spent with large-scale national retailers to a North Side spice shop and a local general store.

As the website came together, the students creating the information sheets hustled to get up to speed on emerging laws and regulations—sometimes calling regulatory authorities to clarify rapidly changing legal matters. Itka Safir wrote a memo about Economic Injury Disaster Loans offered through the Small Business Administration as part of the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, the first of the federal relief packages. Fellow second-year student Katie Karnosh wrote about tax deferral, unemployment benefits and other relief initiatives.

“I was glad to have an opportunity to use some of the skills that I had learned in the clinic over the past year to help both clients of the clinic and also other small businesses in Chicago,” Karnosh said. “Many were desperately looking for guidance—everything was happening so quickly, and they were trying to figure out how they could maintain their businesses.”

Another second-year student, Barrett Mills, wrote a memo about the second of the federal relief bills, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. “He was working on it as it was moving through Congress,” Hermalik said.

The students’ willingness to work on the projects, Kregor said, demonstrated “their professional dedication to the clients they serve directly and to the broader community of low-income entrepreneurs in need of advice and assistance.”

Hermalik said the project offered everyone involved a chance to make a difference.

“In a situation like this, it can be hard to know what you can do to help,” she said. “But it reminds me of something we often say in my seminar. Yes, you might feel like: ‘Where on Earth do I even start?’

“But the other way to think about it is this: With a problem this big, there are many places to start, and many places where you can have an impact. All you have to do is pick one.”

—This story was first published on the University of Chicago Law School website.